From time to time, I run training courses on Non Technical Skills for Consultants and one of the first questions I ask participants concerns the relationship between consultant and client.
After years in the field we consultants take this relationship for granted, but it’s actually a slightly tricky one. We’re engaged to provide independent and impartial advice to our clients, but we’re also paid for it. On the one hand we must do what we’re told, and on the other hand we tell our clients what to do.
Conflicts of interest in consulting have an infamous history. Remember the ENRON scandal and its aftermath. When the big audit firms provided consulting services to their clients they had an interest in being a little more ‘understanding’ of accounting lapses than they ought to have been. Being nice to their audit clients won them millions in consulting fees. The link was never explicit, and perhaps in some cases it wasn’t even conscious, but even so, the consequence of the scandal were that the big audit firms were forced to shed their consulting practices and firms were required to change their auditors more frequently.
So, where do we consultants stand? Are we told what to do, or do we tell?
Those of us who have been in the business too long might, at this point, and with a wry smile, plead the ‘psychoanalyst’ position, and claim that all we’re ever expected to do, as consultants, is to listen sympathetically to what the client says, ask a few very open questions, and then agree with whatever position the client takes. You certainly don’t get fired that way. But it’s not my way.
In my training course I draw a parallel with the way a waiter might present his restaurant’s offering to a guest, and I ask participants to tell me which waiter is most like a consultant.
The Compliant Waiter
The compliant waiter is eager to provide his guest with whatever he may ask for:
Good evening, Sir. No, Sir, we don’t have a menu. This is perhaps an unusual restaurant. We take pride in offering you the best possible service. We give you exactly what you want. Our chef can cook absolutely anything. Just tell me what you’d like.
The Conventional Waiter
The conventional waiter offers a menu of options.
Good evening, Sir. Here’s our menu. You’ll see that we have a wide variety of dishes, all of them good. Just tell me what you’d like.
The Advising Waiter
The advising waiter offers his own recommendations from the menu.
Good evening, Sir. Here’s our menu. You’ll see that we have a wide variety of dishes, all of them good. But we’re especially famous for our fish, and the lemon sole is particularly excellent today. But if you prefer meat, then the sirloin steak is the best we’ve got. Just tell me what you’d like.
The Honest Waiter
The honest waiter puts the interests of his guest first, and seems abandon commercially sensible behaviour, sending his guest to another restaurant (perhaps in the hope that he will return on a better day?).
Good evening, Sir. Here’s our menu. You’ll see we have a wide variety of dishes, all of them usually good. But just between you and me, the chef had a tiny bit too much to drink last night. If you really want to eat well, then come back another time. You’ll do better today at that restaurant across the road. I ate there myself last week and it’s really pretty good.
The Extremely Honest Waiter
The extremely honest waiter is intrusive!
Good evening, Sir. It’s nice to see you again. I have to say, though, that you don’t look your best this evening. In your present condition I’d say you’d be much better off not eating anything at all.
Which of these is most like a consultant?
Let me know your thoughts.
This is the second post in a series on the Art of Consulting.